Kantha's MelodiesMichelle Dixon (MA NCSS 2021)
There is something special about the wind running its fingers through the hairs of trees. Such an interaction creates a harmonious sound that fades all other noises. I laid in bed, attempting to mask my headache with the frequency coming from Providence’s orchestra of leaves. It’s a frequency that could never be replicated—a gift, specifically for me.
The only person who could upstage these trees is my mother, who sang rather boldly. When she sang, I inhaled frequencies that shattered toxic sentiments hiding in the crevices of my conscious and unconscious mind. Yet, before my mother was born there was my grandmother, Nani. She sang too. Nani said she and her friend walked around their village in Bangladesh singing songs and hymns and humming alongside the land she dwelt in.
“But when I lost my friend,” Nani said, “I stopped singing, and the land no longer sang with me.”
My alarm clock erupted, awakening me from my daydreams. I forced myself out of bed, while my headache persevered. I swallowed one of my last pills and saved the other for later in the day. It was 9:00 AM and class started at 9:30.
Quickly I dressed and walked in the kitchen to find unopened spices laid across the counter, while Nani struggled with the stove. Every year Nani visited us from Bangladesh, which meant Bangladeshi food for a month. It wasn’t my favorite. As an 18 year old, nothing was my favorite.
I laughed, “Nani, what are you doing?”
She sank her head in defeat. “Well, I’m trying to make radha ballabhi.”
“What is rad ... balla...,” I shook my head. “How do you even pronounce that?”
“Your mom has taught you nothing,” she laughed and kissed my head. “Come with me to Bangladesh for a month, and you’ll learn everything you need to know.”
She smiled, “You really want to know?”
“Pain. Fear. Love.” Her finger pressed against my chest, “Sahaanubhooti.”
Her finger contained complex geometrical lines that professed her age. Each line revealed a memory or a moment in the past, but each line lives in both.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“Good morning,” Mom yelled from the staircase. She carried my baby sister, Anya. “Priya, you’re still here? You’re going to be late for class.”
“We’ll talk later,” Nani said.
When I finally arrived on campus, I rushed to class. On my way there, my head started throbbing again. Ahh … great. I leaned against a building to rummage through my cluttered bag for a pill. Just when I found my bottle of Advil, an electric discharge broke between the nerves in my head, causing an immediate spasm throughout my body. My last pill dropped on the pavement. Oh, no.
I clung to the wall of the building to stabilize my steps. Then, a strange vision appeared. Was it a vision or was my eyesight blurred? I’m not sure, but when my hand touched that white concrete building, a line appeared on the wall. From this one line came more lines that intertwined, that passed, traversed, and seeped through other lines. I stepped in closer and elongated my arm so that the tip of my finger touched just one line. With one touch, the line attached itself to my finger and in just one moment, my finger held the complexity of all these lines. For that one moment, which felt like a thousand moments, I experienced and felt what I saw in Nani’s lines—the past and present—and the pain throbbed even more in my head. I laid the palm of my hand on my forehead, while the building continued to stabilize me.
The entrance was on the side of the building. I opened one of the glass doors and stumbled in toward the receptionist. A tall Caucasian male dressed in all black stood at the desk.
“Hello,” he said.
“Hi.” The pain ricocheted in my skull. “Can you call someone please? I’m not feeling well.”
He smiled, “Welcome to the RISD Museum. Help is on the way.” To the right, an elevator slowly opened, and out came another Caucasian male dressed in all black.
“Hello, Priya. Welcome. We’ve been waiting for you.”
“How do you know my name?” I asked.
“Here, drink this.” He handed me a 4 oz. cup filled with metallic liquid. “It’ll help the headache.”
“What is this,” I asked.
“Sahaanubhooti—it’ll help you see, listen, and most importantly,” his finger touched my chest, “connect.”
I drank the liquid, and the pain disassembled.
“Better?” he asked.
“Umm … yeah.”
“Great.” He grabbed the cup and threw it away. “Follow me.” He headed toward the elevator.
“Wait, what is this place?”
“It’s the RISD Museum,” he said.
“No, I’ve been to the RISD Museum.” I looked around. “This is different.” All of the walls were painted white. There was no chair or table other than the receptionist’s desk.
He smiled again, “Follow me. There’s someone waiting to see you.” He walked toward the elevator and stood inside.
I planted my feet. “I don’t know what this place is.”
“Priya, don’t be silly,” he laughed. “It’s the RISD Museum.”
Then, the most endearing sound, a gentle humming noise fluttered from the elevators and tickled my ear.
“What is that sound?” I asked.
“Come and see,” he said.
Reluctant, I walked into the elevator. When I stepped in, the doors shut. The button for each of the floors lit up—there were 71 in total and he pressed number 71.
He turned around and looked at me, “Be afraid. This is history.”
Immediately, the elevator propelled upward. I grasped the rail behind me for balance, while the man stood still, feet apart, hands behind his back with a smile on his face. With each floor up, the elevator increased in speed.
“What’s happening?!” I yelled.
Loud screams reverberated throughout the elevator’s steel walls. “Please don’t hurt my child.” “Daddy!” “This land is ours!” “I own you, nigger.”
Every frequency of pain became my burden. I felt the pain of a mother being ripped from her child. I felt the fear of a soldier uncertain if he would return home. This burden didn’t rest. It dissected my chest and injected its pain into my blood. The burden and I became one. Hands on the rail, eyes locked in front of me, while this virus flowed in and out of my soul, the only movement my body could maintain were the tears that cascaded down my face.
I whispered to the man, “Please, make it stop.”
He grabbed a handkerchief from his pocket, and wiped my tears. “I can’t,” he said. “This is history.”
The elevator jolted to a stop. I fell to the ground and wept at the man’s feet. “What is this place?” I asked.
He knelt down and grabbed my two hands to help me off the floor. “She’s waiting on you,” he said.
“Who?” I asked. He unlocked the elevator door and I stood in front of a dark abyss.
“Go and see,” he said.
“I’m not going out there.”
“Oh, Priya,” with force he grabbed me by the wrist.
“Let go of me,” I yelled.
“This is history.” He yanked my arm and thrusted me out of the elevator.
When I collapsed to the ground, a wave of echoes washed throughout the abyss, but in the abyss the echo met the reminiscent humming sound that enticed me before.
“Hello,” I called. “Is anyone there?” As soon as I stood up, spotlights appeared on a glass case in which a woman stood. I ran to her. “Are you okay?”
She turned around and smiled. Her exhibit label read “Sashiko.” She wore a long, midnight blue dress. Tattooed on her arms were small blue dots that formed into geometrical shapes, but her left arm was missing. With her other arm, she pointed to the right.
“Rekishi,” she said.
Another woman appeared in a glass case. Her exhibit label read “Buba.” She was a Nigerian woman who also wore a long, yellow cotton dress. Tattooed on her arms were orange circular shapes that morphed into other circular shapes.
She too pointed to the right and said, “Itan.”
The deeper into the abyss I walked, the more glass cases appeared on the left and right side of the room. Each of these large cases held a woman with an exhibit label inscribed with a different name, and each directed me to the next woman and the next woman and the next.
The last two women, across from each other, smiled at me, and said, “This is history.” The lights from their glass cases dimmed, and the only presence in the room was myself and that tender hum.
“Hello,” I yelled.
Suddenly, a glass case appeared in front of me. A woman sat in an ivory silk dress, faced toward the wall and gently humming. Tattooed on both sides of her shoulders was a tree, followed with intricate imagery of exotic birds, florals, and working women that traveled down her arm.
“Hi,” I said.
She stopped humming and slowly turned around, revealing a scar that rested diagonally on her face. I stepped back in fear.
“Don’t be afraid,” she said. She smiled. Her smile was nostalgic. “My name is Kantha.”
“Hi, I’m ...”
“Priya, yes, I know.”
“How do you know?” I asked.
She pointed to the bench behind me, “Why don’t you sit down?”
I slowly walked backward, not wanting to take my eyes off of her. This is a dream. I fainted and I’m dreaming.
“What is this place?” I asked.
“Why do you ask that question?” She shook her head. “That’s the wrong question, Priya. It’s not about the place. It’s about the things and the people who inhabit a place.”
“Then who are you?” I asked.
“Do you ask in fear or in curiosity?”
“Both. I am afraid and I am curious.”
“Don’t fear me, Priya.” She stretched out her arms in front of her. “Fear me.”
Her tattoos were precisely executed—the crescent of a moon, the delicacy of a leaf. Yet in between these detailed tattoos were scars that once contained thick, crimson blood.
I stepped closer to the glass case, “What happened to you?”
“It’s interesting how both beauty and pain entice a soul to care.” She looked down. “I’m originally from India. India before the partition. Do you know of this?”
“A little, my grandmother told me some stories.”
“Did you listen?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“No, did you listen Priya? Did you listen to the cries of the land as colonialism’s sword severed the ground?” She stepped closer to the glass. “We were separated into Bangladesh and Pakistan, along with family, culture, and tradition.” She shook her head. “It’s not enough just to hear, you must listen.”
“What am I listening for?”
“A missing piece,” she said. “Trauma shows no mercy. It takes whatever it wants, and one of the most precious things it can ever take is a person’s frequency.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your voice.” She pointed to her throat. “Your frequency. That’s what happened to your Nani.”
“You know my grandmother?” I asked.
Her eyes drifted to the distance, “Yes, she was my best friend.”
“Nani is like 70 years old,” I chuckled. “You couldn’t have grown up with her. You’re too young. That’s impossible.”
Tears welled in her eyes. “We grew up together in Bengal. When she was afraid, I remember her small arms wrapped around me. She squeezed me so tight, I could hardly breathe.”
“Nani, afraid? Yeah, that doesn’t sound like her.”
“We all experience fear, Priya. Before Bangladesh became a country, East Bengal became a property of Pakistan. We fought for independence, but with it came sacrifice.” She stepped closer to the glass. “Priya, how old are you?”
“Your Nani was around 20 when she watched soldiers from the Pakistani army brutally murder her father and brother.” She rubbed her scars. “Your Nani, myself, and many of the other women in these rigid boxes have lived—and are still living—in the past and present recurring memories of war.”
“You were with her during all of this?”
“For a short time.” She closed her eyes. “After her brother and father were killed, she and her mother quickly immigrated to India in fear they would die.”
“You went with her?”
“No.” Tears trickled down the scar on her face. “She had to take what was essential. So she left me in East Bengal.”
“You didn’t have family who could help you?”
“Priya, my family was left there as well—dying and still dying. Some of them, like myself, were taken and sold to be spectacles—misunderstood, misrepresented pleasurable means of entertainment.” She stared me in the eyes. “Is that all I am?”
I remained silent, while tears dripped down my cheeks.
She rubbed the glass case as if she were touching my face, “I remember her tears. Your Nani hummed the most precious melodies, while her tears merged into mine.”
Suddenly, tiny drops of blood seeped through Kantha’s scars. She touched the blood and examined it on her finger.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Scars that aren’t fully healed always reopen.”
“Should I get one of the men to help?”
She laughed. “No, they aren’t here to help, Priya. I need to see Nani.”
“You want Nani to come here?”
“How will I even find this place again?”
“I’ll find you,” she said.
“How?” I asked.
Kantha sat down and faced the wall again.
“Kantha,” I called.
Again, she released the most pleasurable frequencies from her perfectly formed lips. This time, the music didn’t tickle my ears, it only tugged against my eyelids. I sat on the bench to keep myself from falling.
“Kantha,” I said again. I struggled to stay awake. All I wanted was to stay awake, but every high and low melody serenaded me to sleep.
She whispered, “Bring me Nani.”
The sound of my alarm clock exploded in my ears. I jumped up out of bed. It was 7:00 in the morning. How did I get here? The television in the living room was on, and from its speakers came the most endearing melodies—Kantha’s melodies.
“Kantha,” I whispered as I slowly walked into the living room. Nani sat on the couch with an old cloth, a needle, and thread in her hand.
“You’re up early,” she said. “Come, sit.”
I sat next to her, “I couldn’t sleep.”
“You came back from school so late.” She continued to pull the needle through the cloth.
“Really,” I touched my head. “I don’t even remember coming back home.”
“You work too hard child.” She touched my thigh.
On her hand, I remembered those beautiful geometric lines. Then, I noticed the music playing on the television.
“What is the name of that song?”
“I’m not sure. It’s just a popular Hindi melody.” She pointed to the CD player. “I have it on tape.”
I laid back on the couch, “Why don’t you sing, Nani?”
She stopped sewing. “You know why Priya.” She lightly rubbed the cloth in her hand.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to …”
“No, it’s okay.” She forced a smile. “I can’t tell you everything. But I can tell you this: history continues, whether I sing or not.”
“But Nani, you should sing.”
“Oh, if I could, I would sing all the time if that would make you understand Bangladesh’s history. But, for now, I cook Bangladeshi food and speak in Hindi, to show you history—the food, the music,” she lifted her cloth, “the fabric. They’re all history.”
When she lifted the piece of cloth, I saw the same tree that was printed on Kantha’s shoulder embroidered on the cloth.
I touched the cloth. “Nani, what is this?” I asked.
“It’s called kantha,” she smiled loudly. “I had one when I was growing up. I stopped sewing for a while, but I’m trying to do it again.”
I examined the cloth, “Do you like it?” she asked. “I wanted to make one for you and your sister. It meant so much to me when I was your age, so I thought you might appreciate it.”
I jumped up. “Nani, we have to go.”
She laughed, “Where?”
“I can’t explain, but we have to go now.”
I grabbed a jacket from the coat stand. “Here, Nani.” I ran to the door, “Come on.”
“Listen, I’m in good health for a 70-year-old woman, but I’m not running.” She put on the jacket. “And where are we going?”
I laughed, “Just trust me, okay?”
Nani sluggishly walked behind me, while I ran down the hall of our apartment building to the elevator. I pressed the button multiple times to open the elevator. Come on. Come on.
“Relax, Priya,” Nani said.
The elevator doors opened. We stepped in, and the button for each of the floors lit up—there were 71 in total.
“Since when did this building have 71 floors?” Nani asked.
I smiled, “Hold onto the rails Nani.”
“Why?” she asked.
The elevator propelled upward, and she immediately grabbed the rail.
“What is going on?” she yelled.
“History,” I yelled back.
Laughter entered into the steel walls of the elevators, and joy erupted in both of us. Shivers of delight, a blanket of peace surrounded our once cold bodies. Then, what felt like oil slivered down Nani’s face, dripped on her tongue, to her throat, and into her vocal cords. She didn’t choke. She breathed. She inhaled a fresh wind of solitude and exhaled a potent accumulation of cares. She released her hands from the rails, and let the speed of the elevator carry her to each floor. Sahaanubhooti was here and it sank deeply into me.
As the elevator came to a stop, tears streamed down Nani’s face. I placed my hands on her skin and wiped her tears. “Nani, this is our history.” The door of the elevator opened.
“What’s in there?” She pointed to the dark abyss.
“You ready?” I asked.
She grabbed my hand, “Yeah.”
We stepped out of the elevator, and a majestic humming sound met us where we stood. Yet, this time, it wasn’t just one. Many unified voices rushed in to greet us.
Sashiko appeared in her glass box, with lights illuminating each of her intricate designs. Nani jumped back in fear.
“It’s okay,” I said.
Sashiko smiled and continued to hum. She pointed to Buba, whose golden dark skin carried the presence of the illuminating lights. Buba smiled and continued to hum. She pointed to the next woman, and the next woman directed me to the next and the next and the next.
The last two girls smiled and in unison they said, “Welcome to our history.” The lights shut off and one nostalgic voice fluttered through the room.
“Who is that?” Nani asked. “It sounds … familiar.”
Kantha’s glass case appeared in front of us. She was faced to the wall.
Nani walked closer to the case. “Hello,” Nani called.
Kantha stopped humming. She slowly turned around. “Ahanna.” Tears escaped her eyes.
Nani grasped her mouth with her hands, “Kantha,” she said.
Their hands met on the glass case, and their knees trembled with the grief and joy that led to this desperate encounter. They wept with one another as they sat, their hands never leaving the glass that separated their touch.
“What did they do to you?” Nani asked.
Kantha showed nani her bleeding scars, “There’s not much I can do.” She looked at me. “But she can.”
“Me?” I asked.
“Yes,” Kantha said. “You can. Read my label.”
I walked to her exhibit label and read it out loud, “It just says ‘Kantha.’”
“No, read it,” Kantha said.
I looked closely and in small letters a poem appeared:
“Spreading the embroidered quilt,
She works the lifelong night,
As if the quilt her poet were
Of her bereaved plight.
Many a joy and many a sorrow
Is written on its breast;
The story of Rupa's life is there,
Line by line expressed."
“What does this mean?” I asked.
“What do you feel?” Nani asked.
I pressed against my chest, “Sahaanubhooti.”
Suddenly, the glass door gradually opened. Kantha wept as she stepped out of the case. For that had been her first time in many years that she didn’t have to see people through a glass.
She stood in front of Nani—face to face. Nani trembled as she wrapped her arms around Kantha’s fragile body. For the first time in a long time, from the deepest part of her belly, Nani released a frequency so tender, so delicate, yet so sharp that it broke any atmospheric pressure; Kantha soon joined in. Then, Kantha’s scars began to mend and enclose back into her skin.
“Oh, my,” she said. “Thank you, thank you my friends,” Kantha whispered. She wiped her tears.
“Oh, Kantha, you can come with us now,” I said.
“I’m sorry, Priya,” Kantha stepped in her case.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I can’t,” she said.
“Wait, why? You can come with us. Nani needs you. You need Nani, right?” I looked at Nani for support.
“No, Kantha is right.” Nani grabbed my hand. “She must stay.”
Tears raced down my face. “Why did you bring us back here if you weren’t going to come?” I yelled. “Why would you do that?”
Nani touched my arm. “Priya.”
“No, Nani.” I stepped toward Kantha. “You can’t just stay. I can’t let you stay.”
“Priya, in this glass case, I stand for centuries to come, forever in bondage. But no matter if I’m in this glass or with you, what’s most important is that our story will live on.” She pointed her finger in my chest, “You are not distant from my past or present. You are just as important to my history, and it’s important for you to listen and see that history—to be a part of the history.”
More tears washed over my cheeks. Nani wrapped her arm around me. “Please,” I said to Kantha, “Please, don’t go.”
Kantha leaned in and her gentle lips pierced my forehead. “I’ll find you, always,” she whispered. She grabbed Nani’s hand and touched her skin. “Line by line expressed.” She kissed Nani’s hand as Nani wept.
Kantha closed the glass case, and the room went dark. “Kantha,” I cried.
The lights came on. Nani and I were in the elevator of the apartment building. I looked at the buttons—8 floors. We stepped out on the first floor, my hand interlocked with Nani’s. We didn’t talk for most of the day. I didn’t want to speak.
I laid in bed that night listening to the orchestra of trees.
Nani knocked on my door, “Can I come in?”
“Yeah,” I replied.
She stepped in my room and sat on the other side of the bed. She didn’t speak—she just sat. Eventually, she put her legs underneath my sheets. She rustled her hands in her pocket and retrieved the cloth she was working on before. Nani began to embroider, creating depth and precision with every poke of a needle into this delicate piece of fabric.
I turned toward her and laid my head against her arm. Then, a song drifted from her lips—sweet, calming, affirming melodies that overpowered everything. My Nani’s frequency upstaged the trees.
“Can I try?” I asked.
She smiled and handed me the cloth and the needle. She pointed to her last stitch. “Start from here.”
I moved the needle in and out of the fabric. In that moment, with my Nani, history continued. Line by line, history continued.
Kantha Quilt (Bengali), 1800s. Image courtesy of the RISD Museum, Providence, RI.
Michelle Dixon is learning to listen and write to foster love and vulnerability within herself and the people around her.